Closer Readings Commentary

Voices of Democracy: A Resource for Teachers

J. Michael Hogan is Liberal Arts Research Professor and Director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State University. He is one of the founders and co-directors of Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project.

What is Voices of Democracy and how can I use it?

Voices of Democracy (VOD) is an online curriculum resource for the study of great speeches and debates in American history. Designed and maintained by an interdisciplinary group of scholars, VOD consists of more than 50 curriculum units built around a growing collection of famous and not-so-famous speeches, from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to George W. Bush’s speech on the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Each curriculum unit consists of:

  • A speech accompanied by a critical essay illuminating its historical context, rhetorical strategies and style, and relevance to ongoing political and social controversies.
  • Each unit also includes:
  • A collection of teaching-learning materials, including questions for classroom discussion; and
  • Ideas for student research, and “citizenship resources” that encourage students to “get involved” in civic affairs.

How studying speeches encourages civics and citizenship

Since Plato and Aristotle first wrote about rhetoric in ancient Greece, the study of oratory has been used to educate young people for citizenship. By studying speeches, students learn the communicative skills they need to be active participants in civic life, and they also become more knowledgeable about U.S. history and our nation’s civic and deliberative traditions. The study of speeches helps bring history to life for students, and it might even inspire students to “speak out” themselves. In short, the study of speeches serves multiple pedagogical purposes, from teaching students about language, history, and civic affairs to encouraging engaged citizenship.

Voices of Democracy and the Common Core

Originally designed for college teachers and their students, VOD is very useful for high-school and middle-school teachers implementing new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts and History/Social Studies. It is organized around seven recurrent themes or “deliberative topics” in U.S. history:

  • Citizenship and Civic Identity
  • Economic and Social Justice
  • Religion and Public Morality
  • Freedom of Speech
  • U.S. Internationalism, and
  • War and Peace

Consider, for example, how the study of speeches might relate just one of the new ELA-Literacy standards in history and social studies:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3: "Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used."

On VOD, teachers will find critical essays couched in clear and accessible language that speak directly to these issues, written by experts in argumentation and debate, rhetoric and composition, and other language arts. All of the essays on VOD provide:

  • historical context;
  • biographical information about the speaker;
  • an assessment of the legacy of each speech; and
  • its implications for ongoing political and social controversies.

In addition, each curriculum unit on VOD includes: teaching and learning resources that emphasize the rhetorical qualities of the speech, its historical significance, and its relevance to ongoing debates.

VOD treats the great speech as a window into our nation’s history and cultural identity. It can be used to help students learn to read a complex text critically by:

  • evaluating its reasoning and argumentation;
  • its appeals to emotion or prejudice; and
  • its rhetorical style and tone.

It also can be used to teach the rhetorical and ethical principles that students need to be both responsible speakers and more critical consumers of information in the “marketplace of ideas.” Finally, great speeches can be used to teach students about America’s past and the role of debate and deliberation in our civic life. By teaching great speeches, we can help to combat what former NEH chairman Bruce Cole called “Our American Amnesia”—the lack of understanding, particularly among young people, of our nation’s past, its founding principles, and its deliberative institutions and traditions.

New curriculum modules for K–12

Voices of Democracy continues to grow, with future plans calling for the development of new K–12 curriculum modules. These curriculum modules will make it even easier for teachers to use the site to meet new Common Core standards. Focusing on speeches selected especially for the language arts and history requirements, the modules will contain ready-made lesson plans, writing assignments, and reproducible resources designed specifically for high school teachers. With these new materials, teachers will be better equipped to engage students in the study of America’s tradition of free speech and democratic deliberation. Perhaps, over time, we might even foster a more engaged, discerning, and critically thoughtful citizenry—one that elevates our public discourse by holding all who speak in public to higher standards.